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Q&A with Garry Kasparov

(Chester Higgins Jr./New York Times)

THE 1985 CHAMPIONSHIP chess match between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov captured the world's attention not just for the gripping chess, but because Kasparov, at 22, embodied an outspoken, anti-authoritarian spirit that seemed a rebuke to the Soviet status quo. Kasparov won the match, becoming the youngest world chess champion in history and a heroic figure to many who would welcome the collapse of Communism.

In 2005, Kasparov quit professional chess to launch a second career as a political activist in Vladimir Putin's Russia, bringing his celebrity - and elements of his risk-taking, aggressive chess style - with him. Based in Moscow, Kasparov tours the country, campaigning for democracy and free elections. He also makes his case in the Western press. In an editorial for The Wall Street Journal, he argued forcefully that the Putin regime is a Russian Mafia on a massive scale, buoyed by petrodollars, resorting to force, and relying on the Western pipe dream that the New Russia is a fledgling democracy rather than a dangerous stage in the evolution of tyranny.

Kasparov's group, the Other Russia (, aims to unite all anti-Putin factions, from skinheads to neo-Bolsheviks. In a country tightly controlled by a former KGB agent, this can seem a quixotic goal at best. But Kasparov hopes to draw on the qualities that propelled him to a record-breaking 15 years as chess champion, including the ability to be self-critical, to adjust rapidly to different challenges, and to last. And it can't be denied that for now Kasparov enjoys a formidable advantage over several other prominent critics of Putin: Kasparov is still very much alive.

Reached last week after midnight Moscow time, Kasparov talked about his new book - "How Life Imitates Chess: Making the Right Moves, from the Board to the Boardroom" - and what he hopes to achieve in Russia's presidential elections.

IDEAS: Why are you awake at this hour?

KASPAROV: I'm working. I use early morning hours for discussions with Americans. I have several more calls to make and don't normally go to bed before 2 a.m.

IDEAS: You're running for president in Russia's March elections on the Other Russia ticket, aren't you?

KASPAROV: Be very cautious in using the words "running" or "elections." "Running" is the wrong word because when Americans say it, they think of Giuliani or Obama or McCain. In Russia we are not fighting to win elections. We are fighting to have them.

Most likely I will be nominated by the Other Russia. But that means very little in Putin's Russia, because everybody understands there's zero chance of my being registered, due to the technical obstacles on the way. The simplest one is needing 2 million signatures - no more than 40,000 from any one region, whether Moscow or a small town. Next, they investigate the signatures and if they reject 10 percent, you're out. There are many other obstacles but this is the barrier you can't cross unless the Kremlin wants you want to participate.

IDEAS: Will the Kremlin let you participate?

KASPAROV: No. Participation would mean that I could be on television, and that's sacred territory.

IDEAS: Given what has happened to other critics of the Putin regime - the author Alexander Litvinenko, for example, poisoned by polonium-210 in London, and the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, gunned down in a Moscow elevator - don't you fear for your safety? Or do you think that your fame as a chess player protects you?

KASPAROV: It offers me some sort of protection. It doesn't offer guarantees. I have bodyguards. My family is protected here as much as possible. I do not fly airplanes long distance, do not consume food or liquids in places I do not know. I try to minimize the risks, and still I'm in danger.

IDEAS: Couldn't you continue to act against Putin from the West?

KASPAROV: Who cares if I argue from the West? It's absolutely immoral to talk about Russian problems, and tell people to be on the street in protest against the regime, while I'm sitting in New York.

When I played chess I always used to evaluate my chances. In politics, too, you evaluate your chances, but it's more of a fight for values. And when you fight for values, unless you stand firm on the ground you've chosen, you lose.

IDEAS: But isn't it important that you survive to go on making your case?

KASPAROV: I travel across the country extensively and talk to the people. They believe me because they know I make enough money to be independent. I never stole from them. I'm not part of the government. I played chess for my country for 25 years. I have world fame and could be comfortable anywhere in the world.

The only argument state propaganda makes against me is I'm an agent of American or Western influence. When I'm in Moscow and on the streets with people, everybody sees it's nonsense.

IDEAS: I'm sorry to insist, but aren't you entitled to fear?

KASPAROV: It's all right. It's a painful discussion. And you're not the only one who raises these questions. If I understand the threat is absolutely real, I will probably not push my luck.

IDEAS: Do you identify with the dissidents against the Soviet Union? Do they inspire you?

KASPAROV: They do inspire me and I have good relations with many of them. We are doing something similar. We're trying to create the concept of opposition in the country. Even under Yeltsin that was frustrated, and never amounted to a genuine democratic opposition.

IDEAS: Is the Other Russia laying the groundwork for long-term opposition?

KASPAROV: No, it's not long term. We were successful in creating an opposition and at first thought we might be in a powerful position before the presidential election of 2008. That was too optimistic. The collapse of the regime will not occur in March 2008. It will have to take longer. But it's not long term. I'm absolutely confident the regime will not survive, and my analysis is that it will not survive beyond 2012.

IDEAS: In 1985, the Soviet Chess Federation interrupted your match with Anatoly Karpov, which you were about to win. The Soviet chess world was still recovering from Bobby Fischer's defeat of Boris Spassky in 1972. Karpov was their reliable new champion. They didn't want problems from an upstart like you. That's where your battle with Russian authorities begins, isn't it?

KASPAROV: Yes. I started by fighting the chess federation and wound up fighting the Soviet regime. In 1990 and 1991 I thought the game was over for Communism and Soviet-style dictatorship. I didn't plan to become a leader of opposition to the new regime. But when I recognized dictatorship was coming back I gradually came to the conclusion that I had no choice. I had to be part of this fight, which is very important not only for my country but for the rest of the world.

Harvey Blume is a writer based in Cambridge. His interviews appear regularly in Ideas. E-mail

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